In a time when laws and regulations were lacking, there were numerous instances of scientific research that were both morally questionable and downright cruel. Here are eight chilling examples of psychological experiments we can’t believe were allowed to happen…
8. Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Experiments
In 1965, a man named Martin Seligman investigated whether or not helplessness could be taught – or learned. He did it by putting dogs in one side of a box that had been divided in two by a low barrier. Seligman then gave the dog an electric shock that it could avoid by crossing to the other side.
Needless to say, the dogs soon learned to jump straight into the other section of the box. However, the twist came when Seligman made it impossible for the dog to avoid the shock. He tethered them together so there was no chance of escape. When he put them back into the box the next day, they made no attempt to cross the barrier and stay pain-free – despite the fact they now could.
7. Dr. Lauretta Bender’s Electroshock Treatment of Children
In the late 1940s and 1950s, a respected psychiatrist called Laurette Bender delivered electric shocks to the brains of children diagnosed – often dubiously, from the sounds of it – with schizophrenia. She thought this electroshock therapy helped. Many people now vehemently disagree. The youngest child she “treated” was three years old, who ended up getting shocked 20 times.
6. The Monster Study
The infamous “Monster Study” was an experiment conducted in 1939 at the University of Iowa to investigate stuttering. The researchers in charge, Mary Tudor and Wendell Johnson, divided 22 orphan children into two groups.
One group received “positive speech therapy,” where they were praised for their speech. The other received “negative speech therapy,” where they, well…weren’t. They were belittled and criticized for any imperfection in their speech.
The result? Alongside a range of mental health problems, some children in the second group developed lifelong speech impediments/problems (they’d started the experiment with nothing wrong). Fearful of repercussions, the results were never published.
5. Project MK-Ultra
This one sounds like something straight out of a Bond or Jason Bourne movie. Back in the early Cold War days, the CIA set up a secret research program investigating what boils down to mind control. According to Wikipedia, the goal was to “develop procedures and identify drugs that could be used during interrogations to weaken people and force confessions through brainwashing and psychological torture.”
The whole thing is wild. But one of the more heinous (and 100% illegal) activities was using US and Canadian citizens as involuntary test subjects. Unbeknownst to them, they be plied with LSD and other drugs, then subjected to everything from hypnosis and sensory deprivation to abuse and torture.
4. The Milgram Experiments
The 1961 Milgram Experiment(s) are some of the best-known psychological studies of all time. Conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University, the goal was to study obedience to authority.
In the experiment, two “participants” (in reality, only one was a participant; the other was an actor) were introduced to each other. They were then put in two rooms, where the participant couldn’t see the other person, but could hear them. They were then instructed by an authority figure – the researcher – to deliver electric shocks of increasing intensity whenever the other person answered a question incorrectly.
In reality, it was all fake. No actual shocks were administered, and the yells and groans participants heard in response to “shocks” were all pre-recorded. What was terrifying about the study is that almost every participant chose to deliver shocks when told to do so. And almost two-thirds delivered the maximum 450-volt shock – effectively choosing to kill the other person.
Understandably, the experiment caused significant distress to the participants, many of whom asked to stop but were prompted to continue by researchers. One teacher who took park thought he’d killed someone and started crying when he was eventually told the truth.
3. The Stanford Prison Experiment
Conducted in 1971 by Philip G. Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment simulated a prison scenario. He took 24 young men and split them into two groups: the guards and the prisoners. Guards were given uniforms and mirrored sunglasses (to prevent eye contact); prisoners were given a “dress” to wear and had a chain padlocked to a foot as a symbol of their oppression.
What followed was a fairly rapid descent into anarchy. The short version is that those in authority became cruel and oppressive to the “prisoners,” many of whom experienced various forms of mental distress. The experiment was brought to a premature end after 6 days because the guards had become so authoritarian.
2. Little Albert
Little Albert was a 9-month-old orphan who became the subject of a notorious 1920 experiment conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner. In it, they exposed Albert to an array of stimuli, including masks, a monkey, a rabbit, burning newspapers, and a white rat. The baby showed no signs of fear to any of them.
However, the next time they exposed him to the rat, Watson hit a metal pipe with a hammer to create a loud noise, making Albert cry. They repeated this process numerous times, to the point where Albert started associating the rat with the fear he felt of the noise. It didn’t take long before he’d start crying just from seeing the rat.
1. Harry Harlow’s Pit of Despair Study
This experiment from renowned American psychologist Harry Harlow is as horrible as it sounds. The goal was noble: to develop a better understanding of depression and maybe even find possible treatments for it. The process was anything but: separating baby rhesus macaques from their mothers and putting them in small, specially-designed stainless steel cages – AKA, pits of despair.
The monkeys rapidly developed depression-like symptoms. They stopped playing. They stopped interacting. And some even refused to eat, eventually starving themselves to death.
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